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Fat and Happy in D.C.


Republicans are busting out all over, not just in Congress and the White House but also on Fortune's latest list of the capital's most powerful lobbyists.

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum

Maybe it's a coincidence, but Washington is gorging on red meat. Carnivores have stormed the capital, and this city is nothing if not adaptive. From Smith & Wollensky to Nick & Stef's, from Angelo & Maxie's to the Caucus Room, new steak houses have popped up faster than a politician can pocket a campaign contribution. There are other changes too, like the reappearance of men in boots and women in pearls. But the biggest change is that the Republican Party controls every lever of power in town: the Oval Office, the Senate, the House, the Cabinet. The Democrats? Let 'em eat crumbs!

Although the Grand Old Party isn't about to get everything it wants, a new establishment has taken hold with George W. Bush. This year's Power 25 survey--FORTUNE's list of Washington's most powerful lobbying groups--reflects the turn. Republican organizations are notably on the rise, while Democratic ones are waning. For the first time in four years, the Power 25 has a new No. 1.  The mostly Republican National Rifle Association has replaced the partisan American Association of Retired Persons as the group with the most clout in the capital. FORTUNE's survey was conducted by mail in March and April by the Mellman Group, a Democratic polling firm, and by Public Opinion Strategies, a GOP firm.

Although city slickers might be aghast at the ascendancy of the NRA, this is a highly focused, well-financed organization. Despite high-profile school shootings and unrelenting pressure from gun-control advocates, the NRA has held gun-control legislation at bay. How? By electing its supporters to Congress and, last year, to the White House. In particular, the NRA was pivotal in defeating Al Gore in Arkansas, Tennessee, and West Virginia--all states that usually vote Democratic. If Gore had won just one of them, he would now be President.

Nothing inspires zealotry like a threat, and few people feel more threatened than gun owners, more and more of whom are finding comfort in the NRA. It has 4.3 million members, up one million since last year, and two million since 1998. Its budget increased from $180 million to $200 million last year, including $35 million for political campaigns. The money supports a state-of-the-art lobbying machine with its own national newscast, one million precinct-level political organizers, and an in-house telemarketing department. The NRA's pre-election rallies in 25 cities last year drew 5,000 to 9,000 people each--often much more than Gore drew.

At No. 2 on the Power 25, AARP is not exactly a has-been. Its budget last year was a staggering $542 million. No lawmaker or President would dare to propose changes in Social Security or Medicare without consulting with this behemoth. But AARP is also a house divided. Half of its membership is under age 65 (people become eligible to join at 50). It even publishes a magazine called My Generation to appeal to baby-boomers, the oldest of whom turn 55 this year. AARP may have difficulty deciding which group to represent: retirees or the soon-to-retire. Retirees, for example, tend to favor keeping Social Security just as it is. Boomers generally support changes to ensure that the program will be there when they retire.

Another reason for AARP's slide may be its political neutrality. GOP-friendly groups excelled in 2001. Republican bastions like the National Beer Wholesalers Association (No. 8) moved up strongly. Pro-business groups, including the National Association of Realtors (No. 9), the National Association of Manufacturers (No. 10), and the National Association of Home Builders (No. 11), also advanced. The Business Roundtable, whose members are CEOs, went from No. 37 to No. 26.

By contrast, two mostly Democratic labor unions, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (No. 27) and the United Auto Workers (No. 33), fell off the Power 25. The National Education Association, a teachers' union, dipped from No. 9 to No. 14. The AFL-CIO dropped a slot, from No. 5 to No. 6. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters barely clung to the bottom of the list at No. 25.

Some of the changes had nothing to do with partisan politics. For beating back Napster, the Internet music-swapping service, the Recording Industry Association jumped from No. 40 to No. 22. Two groups joined the list after successfully lobbying for an increase in Medicare reimbursements--the American Hospital Association (No. 13) and the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America (No. 24). The Health Insurance Association of America rose from No. 25 to No. 19 by helping delay a vote on the Patients' Bill of Rights. The Power 25 poll reflects the divergent views of lawmakers and other insiders, but on one issue there's consensus. A former highflier has been laid low; the Christian Coalition, No. 7 in 1997 and No. 35 in 1999, fell to No. 65 this year. It has never recovered from the departure of its charismatic director Ralph Reed.

But the overall story of the list is the triumph of the GOP. Lobbying companies followed the same pattern as the lobbying organizations. The new No. 1 firm is Barbour Griffith & Rogers, led by Haley Barbour, former chairman of the Republican National Committee. His company replaces Verner Liipfert Bernhard McPherson & Hand (No. 3), which has a stellar but painstakingly bipartisan roster of marquee partners (Bob Dole, George Mitchell). Another company, Podesta & Mattoon, rose from No. 14 to No. 9 partly by adding a Republican partner, Dan Mattoon, and making him part of the name alongside Democrat Tony Podesta. Similarly, the law firm Greenberg Trauig zoomed from No. 40 to No. 21 after it hired a slew of former GOP leadership aides. In contrast, OBC Group (No. 23) fell out of the top ten after its big-name GOP partner, Nick Calio, quit to direct the White House lobbying efforts.

This is no time to short Republicans.

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